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Class Warfare and Political Polarization

By E. J. Dionne

WASHINGTON -- Consider the portraits that Republicans and Democrats paint of each other. They explain much of the loathing in our politics.

Democrats see Republicans as a collection of pampered rich people who selfishly seek to cut their own taxes, joined in alliance with religious fundamentalists who want to use government power to impose a narrow brand of Christianity on everyone else.

Republicans see Democrats as Godless, overeducated elitists who sip lattes as they look down their noses at the moral values of ``real Americans'' in ``the heartland'' and ally themselves with ``special interest groups'' who benefit from ``big government.''

Notice that each side is waging a class war in condemning the other as nauseatingly privileged. Yes, these are both parodies. But parodies are weapons in political battles, so it's important to assess the relative truth of each side's claims.

Begin by dismissing the claim that the economically privileged have become Democrats. In the 2004 election, according to the main media exit poll, President Bush won 63 percent of the votes cast by Americans in households earning over $200,000 a year, and 57 percent from those in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. All things being equal, wealthier people vote Republican.

But conservatives counter that Democrats are the party of choice in swank, well-educated latte enclaves: suburban Boston, New York and Philadelphia; Montgomery County, Md.; Microsoftland around Seattle; Silicon Valley; and Hollywood. John Kerry's blue states are, on the whole, richer than George Bush's red states.

All true -- meaning what, exactly? One of the hottest political science papers floating around the political world and the Web comes close to solving the mystery of how Democrats can do so well in certain well-off places and still not be the party of the rich.

The paper has a fetching title: ``Rich state, poor state, red state, blue state: What's the matter with Connecticut?'' Dr. Seuss, who wrote ``One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,'' meets Tom Frank, the author of the influential book ``What's the Matter With Kansas?''

The authors -- Andrew Gelman of Columbia University, Boris Shor of the University of Chicago, Joseph Bafumi of Dartmouth and David Park of Washington University in St. Louis -- show, though careful statistical analysis, how several things can be true at the same time.

Yes, Bush carried a lot of poor states -- but with heavy support from the rich people who lived in them. The class war is being waged more fiercely in the Republican states than in the Democratic states. The income divide is especially sharp in the South where it is reinforced by a strong racial divide.

``In poor states,'' Gelman and his colleagues write, ``rich people are much more likely than poor people to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, but in rich states (such as Connecticut), income has almost no correlation with vote preference. ... In poor states, rich people are very different from poor people in their political preferences. But in rich states, they are not.''

This suggests that our country may be even more polarized and divided than we thought. Not only do red and blue states vote differently, but they cast their votes according to different patterns.

The paper's authors also take a nice swipe at the media, arguing that reporters tend to overemphasize the role of rich Democrats in elections. Why? Journalists, they write, ``noticed a pattern (richer counties supporting the Democrats) that is concentrated in the states where the journalists live,'' notably the environs of Washington and New York. The class polarization in such deep red states of Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi goes largely unreported.

Gelman and his colleagues help us understand why Southern Democrats such as Bill Clinton and John Edwards may be more attuned to the power of populism than northern Democrats such as John Kerry -- and, perhaps, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Their paper also helps explain why Southern Republicans such as President Bush pursue policies that are hugely beneficial to their wealthy base even as they try to diminish the political impact of class warfare by shifting the argument to other subjects: religion, values or national security.

The divide in American politics is about more than the ideological distance between the two parties. Right now, red staters and blue staters live in two different political universes. It's no wonder that political moderation is out of fashion -- though the winner of the 2008 round may be the person who can scramble the patterns of Dr. Seussian politics.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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